I’m delighted to share this guest post from Henry Mintzberg and Peter Todd, one of the professors and Deans from my alma mater, McGill University.
Do you ever disconnect, even for just a few minutes? Think about the last time you used your “off button.” Was it at home over the weekend? On vacation? Or were you at the office? BlackBerrys, iPhones, Androids, iPads, and all their digital relatives are transforming our lives—for better and for worse, with profound implications for management.
Although mobile computing can help managers cope with this vast amount of data, and the many demands on their time, it can also increase the chaos and cause them to miss nuances that could be gleaned from personal interactions.
Turning off e-mail can be vital for a manager’s ability to see the bigger picture, build trust, and share vision.
The good news is, you can learn how to go offline. Here are a few steps you can take to decrease the e-mail chatter and accentuate the substance:
1. Reduce the volume
The more traffic you put on a network and the more people you involve, the more messages you should expect in return. Hold back from sending some messages until you have considered and reconsidered whether you really have something to say (and who needs to hear it).
2. Segment your e-mail
You might have multiple e-mail addresses: one broadly promoted and monitored by an assistant, who has been trained to prioritize, delegate, and reply on your behalf; another open only to those in selected e-mail categories (like your clients and colleagues); and a third for a small circle of contacts, friends, and family members. Some may also have a fourth, used when registering or purchasing online, that is likely to generate spam.
3. Utilize e-mail tools
Although few individuals take full advantage of these features, most e-mail client programs have built-in mechanisms, such as filters and rules, for regulating and organizing information flow. Status messages―such as “out of office” notices―can manage others’ expectations. As electronic assistants, such as Apple’s Siri, increase in sophistication, they are being programmed to extract underlying tasks from e-mails and gather the information needed to complete them.
4. Create individual downtime
Managing your e-mail is one thing, but sometimes you need to escape from it. You can try the strategy used by Danah Boyd of Microsoft, who periodically declares an e-mail sabbatical and ceases all electronic communication (she recommends doing it for a minimum of two weeks).
If that’s too extreme, you can choose to respond only within certain windows of time in the day, and block out “offline” hours in your calendar. During these times, you can turn on your “out of office” message to let people know that your response may be delayed…for the 10 percent of messages that may actually need a response.
5. Create organizational downtime
Nathan Zeldes, formerly of Intel, has been a thought leader in this area, cataloguing and promoting ideas such as organizational “quiet time,” e-mail quotas, message chargeback and accounting systems, and limited-access e-mail servers.
Volkswagen AG has stopped its BlackBerry servers from routing e-mails when employees are off-shift (this applies to union members in Germany, and senior management is exempt); other companies are declaring “no e-mail” periods over important holidays; still others, such as Paris-based IT services company Atos SA, are contemplating banning the internal use of e-mail altogether.
6. Make a fresh start
Those who feel overwhelmed, like Wired columnist and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, have sometimes declared “e-mail bankruptcy.” Out with the old e-mail address and in with the new one. Starting over, you can develop better habits in sending, receiving, and responding to messages, while severing connections with those whom you prefer to leave behind.
7. Power down
When all else fails, remember that you can turn off every one of these electronic devices. In our leadership development programs at McGill University, we routinely remind executive attendees to slow down, step back, and reflect thoughtfully on their own experiences. But that doesn’t just happen; you have to make it part of your management routine.
These are all significant steps, and none of them are easy. They require saying no to forces that, consciously or unconsciously, assume that you will always be available. As the CEO of a major Canadian high-tech company once said about e-mail: “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate, or think.”
But that doesn’t have to be true. You have a choice: Will you control technology so that it works for you, or will you let it undermine your practice of management? It all depends on how much attention you are willing to pay to your habits: the way they are now, and the way they ought to be. And remember, there’s always an off button.
This blog post was adapted from “The Offline Executive” published by strategy+business. Click here to read the original article.
Henry Mintzberg is the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University. Peter Todd is the Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.